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Interaction at the frontiers

Brazilian symposium brings together Brazilian, British and Chilean scientists to discuss emerging scientific topics

Brazil hosted one of the main events celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, the renowned institution for the promotion of science in the United Kingdom. The UK-Brazil Frontiers of Science symposium brought together, in the town of Itatiba, inner-state São Paulo, a group of 76 researchers from Brazil, the United Kingdom and Chile to debate major knowledge issues from a multidisciplinary point of view. “The balance was quite positive,” stated physicist Marcelo Knobel, Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), who coordinated the organization of the event along with Richard Kirby, from the School of Marine Engineering and Science of Plymouth University in the UK. Although concrete results are only expected to materialize in the long term, in the form of international collaboration, Knobel heard praise about the participants. “One of the researchers told me that he remembered why he had decided to turn to science, which was for the pleasure of knowledge,” says Knobel. He was referring to the format of the symposium, which covered varied themes, and he invited the experts to interact and debate matters. “They refreshed their minds, because they were able to learn about instigating subjects that were far removed from their fields of specialization. In the case of those who delivered talks, it was an opportunity to present their research to an audience that, although consisting essentially of laymen in the subjects, was comprised of young researchers of a high level,” he states.

The participants were selected among scientists who had been granted their PhDs less than 20 years ago, but that are regarded as leaders in the academic milieu. The symposium, held from August 27 to August 30, was organized by the Royal Society and by FAPESP, along with the British Council, the Brazilian Academy of Science, the Chilean Academy of Science and a bilateral project, the UK-Brazil Partnership in Science and Innovation. Lorna Casselton, vice-president of the Royal Society, attended the event. Each of the nine sessions held began with three mini-conferences delivered by experts. In the opening debate, Glaucia Mendes de Souza, from the Chemistry Institute at the University of São Paulo (USP), one of the coordinators of Bioen (the FAPESP Program of Bioenergy Research) and Joaquim Seabra, from CTBE (the National Laboratory of Bioethanol Science and Technology) presented the Brazilian experience of sugarcane ethanol production, whereas Sofia Valenzuela, from the University of Concepción, in Chile, presented her country’s efforts to extract ethanol from eucalyptus biomass. As one might expect, several questions concerned the sustainability of biofuels, a well-known concern of the British, who, lacking available land, are betting on solutions such as solar and wind power.

The subsequent discussion also covered research topics at the forefront of knowledge, such as brain plasticity, quantum entanglement, mathematical modeling of populations and disease, the deep Earth system and climate change and plant development, among others. In a session on energy metabolism regulation, the Brazilian scientist Licio Velloso, from Unicamp, described his studies, according to which exaggerated consumption of fats can give rise to inflammation of the neurons in an area at the base of the brain, the hypothalamus, which controls hunger (see Pesquisa Fapesp nº 156). His conference was preceded by a talk by Nadja Cristina Souza-Pinto, a professor from the Chemistry Institute of USP, on energy metabolism regulation, and by Andrew J. Murray, from Cambridge University, who discussed the search for new therapies for cardiac insufficiency. The existence of life outside Earth and the quest for habitable planets underscored the session on the formation and evolution of this planet, which included conferences delivered by Jane Greaves, from Saint Andrews University, and Ken Rice, from Edinburgh University, as well as by the Brazilian scientist Douglas Galante, a researcher from the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Sciences of the Atmosphere at USP and an expert in a field that is still little known, astrobiology (see article).

Positive attitude
Journalism centered on covering science was yet another theme that was discussed. Based on his studies of scientific journalism and the public perception of science, the physicist and journalist Yurij Castelfranchi, a professor at Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), said that Brazil is a favorable environment for bringing together science and society. “About 80 percent of people have a positive attitude toward science. This doesn’t mean that they understand science. The issue that is of interest to us is how to transform this ‘ignorant trust’ into real knowledge,” he said. The journalist Mariluce Moura, director of the journal Pesquisa Fapesp, presented an analysis of the evolution of scientific journalism in Brazil over the last few decades. According to her, the Brazilian media’s focus on scientific knowledge is growing. “Pesquisa Fapesp has become very close to the São Paulo state scientific community, establishing a relationship of trust,” she said. Tim Hirsch, from Britain, highlighted the striking differences between publicizing science in Brazil and in the UK. Hirsch was the BBC News environment correspondent from 1997 to 2006 and now works in Brazil as a consultant and independent journalist.

The Itatiba symposium was part of the Frontiers of Science program, which has been holding major international meetings of researchers since 2003 and which is sponsored by scientific organizations from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, China and Japan. According to Marcelo Knobel, the symposium’s good results showed that this format works. “Even outside the umbrella of the Royal Society, the idea of bringing together young scientists to debate cutting-edge themes deserves to be repeated,” he says. The event was useful to show the reality of research in Brazil to the British. This might yield future partnering agreements. “Many were surprised and enthusiastic about the quality of Brazilian research,” says Knobel. Jonathan Dawes, from the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Bath, said that the experience was worthwhile. “It was an opportunity to gain insight into the current challenges faced by other disciplines and also to get an idea about the reach of research in Brazil and how the United Kingdom can get involved in it,” he stated. Besides the Itatiba symposium, Dawes also conducted seminars at Impa (the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics) at CBPF (the Brazilian Center of Physics Research), in Rio de Janeiro.

The structure of FAPESP financing was stressed by some of the participants, when they filled out, anonymously, a questionnaire evaluating the event. “The São Paulo state financing system is fantastic. If only we had something similar here, especially regarding the cap on administrative expenses…,” wrote one of them. Another person stressed the strength of Brazilian research in fields such as tropical diseases, HIV research and plant biochemistry. “The Brazilian researchers I met impressed me greatly, especially those whom I met in the subsequent visits to laboratories. The investment in science in great, especially in São Paulo state, and the enthusiasm of the graduate students is contagious,” he stated. The concrete results of the event should appear in the long term, in the form of international collaboration.